After watching Walt Disney's "White Wilderness" (1958), wherein a colony of lemmings are depicted experiencing an irrational crowd hysteria, leading to their mass suicide over a cliff... a few questions are inevitably raised:
Did the controversy benefit the film?
Is this scene an example of animal cruelty?
Is it still a documentary, if it's faked?
If you made the movie... would you do it?
The idea of the lemming mass suicide permeates culture to this very day.
And it's because of this documentary.
Does this mean anything?
At the very minimum, "White Wilderness" proves the power of a simple, unexpected, concrete story... The genre, alone, provides that story a kind of unquestionable credibility.
After all, it's a documentary. It must be real.
Of course, the truth is that the lemmings scene in "White Wilderness" was actually faked by the filmmakers. The story of their "mass suicide" was entirely fabricated.
And yet it's the only scene from the movie that's remembered today.
In fact, the movie is singularly notorious for that specific scene.
I still don't know if that's for better or for worse. I suppose the real question is:
Does the myth of the lemming mass suicide make the world a better place?
It does not. It gives me something to think about, something to chat about, something to draw even more controversy on the Walt Disney Company, which in turns gives it more attention, which in turns gives it more power...
But does it make the world a better place?
And what lessons can we learn from the lemming mass suicide?
The only thing we do know for sure about it is that:
1. Documentaries could be a powerful way to seep in false knowledge into a culture.
2. Shocking documentary footage enhances receptivity of information.
3. Information dispersed into a simple, startling, poetic story maximizes audience engagement.
In my opinion, "White Wilderness" is an incredible feat of filmmaking.
There are some spectacular moments captured, some really imaginative story-telling superimposed over the wild footage, and extremely creative photographic recreations of real life intercut with actual wild footage (footage of lemmings in their den, rabbits hiding in logs, that could have only been filmed in a studio) - thus creating an overall dreamy quality: not quite real, not quite fictional.
For the experience of witnessing the ethical dimensions of documentary filmmaking, "White Wilderness" is a must-see.